I Saw A Man This Morning……………. The Song Of Achilles by Madeleine Miller
Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s First World War poem ‘I Saw A Man This Morning’ not only compares the First World War to those mythical Greek battles, it is also an example of how those myths have continued to influence literature over many years. Shaw-Stewart wrote his poem, comparing his experience at Gallipoli with that of those Greeks at Troy, and ended it ‘Stand in the trench, Achilles / Flame-capped, and shout for me.’ Those final lines link to The Iliad and the passge where Achilles, on learning of the death of Patroclus, lets loose a battle-cry which leaves the Trojans with ” all their spirits quaked -even sleek-maned horses,sensing death in the wind, slewed their chariots round and charioteers were struck dumb”. Madeline Miller’s song of Achilles is inspired by that same cry of anguish but with a different and more perdsonal exploration of the relationship between Achillles and Patroclus. It’s impossible to know if a classicist like Shaw-Stewart, who was tragically to survive Gallipoli only to die in France in 1917, would have liked Song of Achilles – but I like to think he would, for this is the story of a Troy that leaps off the page and with a love story at its heart that is unforgettable.
……….I’ll start with a confession – I’ve always loved Achilles!
I first read the Greek myths as a teenager. It was a set text in English Literature at school, but from about half way down the very first page, it was obvious to me this wasn’t going to be the normal chore of reading a set text – this was going to be a joy! I loved the stories and the story I loved most of all was that of Achilles. Therefore I have to admit that I’m probably biased in reviewing this book!
But in mitigation, I’d start by pointing out that it is a very different Achilles that you read about in the pages of Madeline Miller’s book. He’s still the mean, lean, fighting machine of the myths, he’s still the bronzed, spectacularly handsome adonis of the Brad Pitt film, but he’s so much more than that here. Wolfgang Petersen, the director of the film Troy, which had Brad Pitt as Achilles, said “Achilles was the rock star of his day, so it made sense to have Brad Pitt playing him!”. Here, Achilles is much more than the rock star of his day – he’s a man with hopes, passions, confidence, fates, desires and faults, and as a result he emerges twice the hero in my eyes that he was in those original stories I read or in subsequent films. Never, in any of the original stories, or in any film, did I enjoy the story of Achilles as much as I did in “The Song Of Achilles”. This book won the Orange Prize for Fiction this year – and no wonder. It’s simply brilliant! So I can’t imagine any other nominated book even came close to it!
Madeline Miller on 'The Song Of Achilles''It was very important to me to stay faithful to the events of Homer’s narrative. The central inspiration behind the book is the terrible moment in the Iliad when Achilles hears about Patroclus’ death. His reaction is shocking in its intensity'
The story is told here by Patroclus, who is Achilles companion in the myths, and who, in the book, is the overwhelming and undying love of Achilles’ life. It allows Madeline Miller to cleverly tell not only the story of Achilles and Patroclus but to add the love between them to become the heart of the story. And yet all the ingredients of the myth are retained and beautifully crafted in the novel. Achilles is still the son of King Peleus and the god Thetis, but the love affair of the two men, and in particular Thetis’ reaction to it, provide a whole new dimension to Achilles position as the son of a Greek God.
There is still the prophecy of the fatal connection between Achilles and Hector of Troy – Achilles is still destined to kill Hector and still destined to die once he has completed that deed (if you’ve read the myths you’ll know this already – if you haven’t read the myths I’d reassure you I’m not giving anything away that you won’t find out early in the novel!!), but now it’s given a whole new meaning as it is seen through, and reflected on, from the mutual love between Patroclus and Achilles. Similarly, the siege of Troy by Agamemnon, the longing of King Menelaus for the return of the beautiful Helen from the arms of Paris, and the tensions between Achilles and Agamemnon are all here – but seen through the eyes of Patroclus, and seen in the context of the love between him and Achilles, all of these things have a fresh and new feel to them.
‘……this novel’s truly great quality lies in its characters. Oh, Patroclus… I can’t tell you how much I feel for the boy!’
'I will never leave him.It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.
…….If I had had words to speak such a thing, I would have. But there were none that seemed big enough for it, to hold that swelling truth.
As if he had heard me, he reached for my hand. I did not need to look; his fingers were etched into my memory, slender and petal-veined, strong and quick and never wrong.
“Patroclus,” he said. He was always better with words than I.’
The love between Patroclus and Achilles is at the heart of the story and it drives both characters and most of their actions. Madeline Miller starts it as a schoolboy romance which blossoms and grows into the most passionate of affairs between the two men and into the most unbreakable of bonds. It’s a fantastic piece of imagination and it transforms the story entirely to one of emotion and depth instead of one of action and deed. Their relationship colours everything in the book and as a result I found myself changing my thinking about Achilles. Instead of a hero, the greatest warrior of Greece, Achilles is more than anything a man of capable of an incredible capacity to love and of a great loyalty to that love – and I loved him all the more for it!
She has forged something with its own compelling nature
The Daily Telegraph May 2012
Gradually, “The Song of Achilles” becomes a quiet love story, one so moving that I was reluctant to move on to the war
The Washington Post March 2012
Miller's prose is more poetic than almost any translation of Homer
The Guardian September 2011
The book is wonderfully written. It’s testimony to how good a writer Madeline Miller is that she’s not only created two of the strongest characters you could ever hope to read in a novel in Patroclus and Achilles, but that she’s also created a host of engaging, likeable and strong characters around them. Sure the characters were all there in the myths, but she’s not only added to the two main characters, but she’s added something to the others. There’s more of a wordly-wise, almost detached feel to Odysseus to go with the scheming mind, there’s a depth and intelligence to Diomedes that takes him beyond the brave warrior and there’s even now a realistic paranoia and frailty in the self-esteem of the egotistical Agamemnon. It’s brilliant stuff! She adds to the great characterisation with fabulous detail which brings Ancient Greece to life, through food, clothes, customs, social conventions and expectations. Her writing about the gods, their pettiness and their scheming is so well done – you get a real sense of almost idleness straying to meddle in the affirs of men just because they can. It’s callous, cold and utterly believable!
Strangely the only time this realistic feel of Greece and the gods slipped a bit was in one or two aspects of the behaviour of Patroclus and Achilles – there was a slight danger they became almost stereotypically homosexual (for example the kind of ‘women’s refuge’ type tent they set up to rescue some of the captured women of Troy from the hedonistic behaviour of Agamemnon and his warriors – it just felt a little 21st century here to me!). In addition at times some of the dialogue felt a little too much like it was lifted from everyday speak of 2012.
But these are minor quibbles. It’s a book which works on two seemingly distant, arguably contradictory dimensions.As an action story of blood and adventure it’s fantastic. But what’s at the core of it, and what underpins it, is the most touching, moving and passionate of love stories, one of whom is the very epitome of the blood and gore action hero! And perhaps that’s the difference and that’s what made this book such a special read. When I read the story of Achilles 35 years ago I read an adventure story and loved it. When I read Song Of Achilles, I read the most wonderful love story, of two men and their belief in, and passion for, one another. I loved it, loved it, loved it, loved it!
Book RatingIt was the Greek philospoher Diogenes who said "I don't know whether there are gods, but there ought to be!".
And that kind of describes how I feel on reaching the end of this terrific book. I know that the story is a myth, but this book tells such a wonderful story and tells it so beautifully, that the best way to do justice to the book is to believe that although Achilles and Patroclus didn’t exist as written here, they ought to have done!